Campus / Featured / News / April 19, 2018

Tweets called into question

On Wednesday afternoon a crude graphic image was slid under a Jewish professor’s office door in response to their disagreement with the tweets posted by Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz, which have been called anti-Semitic by some Jewish members of the Knox community.

“It’s a disgusting and contemptible image and it’s a disgusting and contemptible act,” Interim Dean of the College Michael Schneider said.

Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich declined to comment on the image because she had not yet had time to process the incident when TKS reached out to her shortly after both she and TKS learned of the event.

The professor, who asked to remain anonymous, and Shabazz both declined to comment on the most recent incident.

Director of Spiritual Life Monica Corsaro was contacted by a Jewish student who feared for their safety on campus after learning of the image.

“They took time, and they thought about it … This is not Knox. This is not the Knox I’ve experienced. Our students have only acted in good faith. My perspective is when you attack one of us you attack all of us,” Corsaro said.

President Teresa Amott sent out an email to campus on Wednesday night addressing the issue and calling the event an “affront to the values we as an institution hold dear.”

TKS will continue to cover the specifics of the incident and responses as the story develops.


The lead up

The controversy started when junior and Co-President of Hillel Chava Solberg received an email from a Jewish student pointing out certain tweets made by Shabazz which they felt were anti-Semitic. Not knowing what to do, Solberg contacted the Hillel advisors and then Corsaro on Sunday, April 8.

Solberg reached out to Shabazz under their advice and set up a meeting between him, her, sophomore Carolyn Ginder and one of the Hillel advisors on Tuesday, April 10.

After the meeting, Shabazz said that he received an email from a faculty member, who had learned about the meeting from an email sent out to the Hillel community by one of the members present. In response, on Thursday, April 12, he emailed the distribution lists of several cultural clubs on campus and the entire faculty list responding to the allegations of anti-Semitism.

As part of his email, Shabazz forwarded some of the private communications with Solberg in setting up the meeting, which he said was a mistake and which he regrets.

“Where I made the mistake, and I apologized to the Hillel person, my intent was to email my perspective and the tweets, not realizing that the tweets were attached to a private email. So that was a mistake and I feel horrible about that and I apologize,” he said.

Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett then forwarded the subsequent email chain to Hillel club, who was not included on the forwarded emails between Shabazz and Solberg. Hulett said that the tweets and the emails she saw explaining the tweets appeared to have an anti-Jewish message. She felt compelled to reach out and offer support to Hillel.

“I found that appalling. In fact, the most appalling thing I’ve seen on a Knox email,” Hulett said. “This was just heartbreaking. It seemed to me that those emails violated every principle of social justice, every principle of tolerance that we’re supposed to have here at Knox. It was horrible, it violated what Knox stands for, at least it seems to me, and again to attack a group because of religious identity – this is wrong.”

Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld, who is one of the few Jewish faculty members, was one of the only public respondents to Shabazz’s email chain and tweets. In her emailed response, she disagreed with the content and message of the tweets.

“I think the things that Brother Shabazz tweeted lacked academic and intellectual integrity. I don’t think an academic should be trumpeting hate speech,” Rosenfeld said in an interview with TKS. “There’s no question in my mind that those are anti-Semitic tweets, particularly the ones about Jews and money, and about the Jewish god supposedly commanding us to commit genocide.”

Visiting Instructor of Art Kahlil Irving was another professor who responded to the email chain, though he voiced his support for Shabazz. He specifically agreed that Jewish people have been assimilated into white culture and have privilege in that way, despite having been marginalized at one point.

Irving also agreed with Shabazz that Jews and Israelis are participating in the genocide of Palestinians.

“Jews are – Israelis are annihilating entire peoples. That’s true. The isolation and killing in Gaza in the West Bank, that is an annihilation of Arab Christians and Arab Muslims. And if you can’t understand that, you have an implicit bias,” Irving said. “How Jews went from Holocaust victims to brutal occupiers in just a few generations, if that ain’t f****n’ the most true statement about Israel, then I don’t know what is. ”

Student Senate discussed the tweets later on Thursday night, but prevented the discussion from addressing the emails.

According to Corsaro and Solberg, Hillel had been planning an open discussion on the topic for Sunday, April 15. Following the emails, Solberg said the Hillel exec felt that they needed a chance to really listen to the Jewish community in a closed space.

The Jewish community met on Sunday in a closed meeting to discuss the developments.


The issues

Solberg identified what she saw as three issues that really pertained to the discussion: the tweets, the emails and her exposure through the forwarding of her personal communications.

For the tweets, context has become the focus of the discussion. Shabazz says that the tweets are meant only as condensed thoughts and that the real learning that could happen would come through full context and discussion.

“[Tweets] are easy to misread, misinterpret the mode of things, the tone, all of that falls out of the tweet oftentimes. So the only way you’ll know is to ask the tweeter, ‘what do you mean?’” he said.

For Solberg, the problem is that no matter what the context, the specific wording of the tweets are problematic.

“I think the tweets are probably being taken out of context. I don’t think that makes them any better, you’re responsible for what you say. Someone brought this up the other night that our generation is constantly being told that what you post online impacts you, I think it’s the same thing,” she said.

The specific wording of the tweet comparing Jews to Nazis particularly worried her.

“That’s a tough comparison there, that’s a really, really tough comparison. I just think there’s better words for oppressors if that’s what you want to say that Jews are oppressors, if that’s your opinion, okay. But bringing in Nazis, that’s gonna be tough,” she said.

Rosenfeld was also upset about the particular wording of some of the tweets made by Shabazz. She felt as though some of the tweets played on ‘age-old’ stereotypes of Jewish people.

“The ones about Jews in Israel are so ugly and so absolute that I don’t believe that this is criticism that is made in good faith. I think it’s criticism that is itself biased,” Rosenfeld said. “When he says the Jews hold the purse strings, he is parroting an ancient accusation against the Jews that we somehow run the finances of the world. It has nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians.”

Rosenfeld also criticized Shabazz’s comparison of Jews and Nazis.

“It’s deliberately cruel,” she said. “It’s ‘you were once the victims of Nazis, now you are Nazis yourselves.’ Which, first of all, is just plain untrue.”

According to Shabazz, he uses Jews when on occasion he means a more specific subset such as Israelis or Zionists. He sees this as part of a broader discussion of the continued oppression of black people by white people, which he sees as now including Jewish people.

“Jews have aspired to whiteness, integrating into the white category. And so, they have upward mobility. Black people don’t have that option,” he said.

To him, statements such as those made in the tweets are acceptable because of his own experience of oppression.

“I’m writing as a black person who is a victim of white supremacy, of which Jews are a part of that group,” Shabazz said.

He also acknowledged that students had felt hurt by the tweets, but pointed out the necessity of discomfort for learning.

“There are currently a subset of Jewish students on this campus who are very hurt and I respect that. And, I tell my white students this in classes, whenever a white student feels uncomfortable about something, you can get a fleeting sense, a very fleeting, superficial sense of what it’s like to be black in America,” Shabazz said.

For some of the Jewish community members on campus, the biggest issue is not the tweets but the methods of discussion that have come up.

“[It was] just overall unprofessional, regardless of if you believe his statements are anti-Semitic, he was just completely unprofessional,” said junior Sam Cohen, who is a member of Hillel Club.

Solberg felt the emails were inappropriate to use for the discussion, especially when her private emails were included. Shabazz had apologized to her for that, but she said that she was uncertain about the apology.

Cohen and Ginder cited Shabazz’s inclusion of “see below” as proof that the forwarding was not a mistake. However, Shabazz said that he had meant to only include the tweets that Solberg had asked him for clarification on, as quoted above.

For Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Gabe Raley, the discussion has distracted from issues that Shabazz has received respect for bringing to the attention of campus.

A professor received a piece of hate mail that was slid under her door Wednesday afternoon depicting a crude graphic image. (Photo courtesy of the professor)

“I agree with Brother Shabazz that how black and brown people are treated in this country is really our most pressing social issue, it is what we should be acting on, thinking about, engaging in every day. And that’s why it’s really disappointing to have to stop that work at this point and have this discussion about whether anti-Semitism is wrong,” Raley said.

Shabazz disagrees. He sees the discussion as being about Black-Jewish relations and therefore as intimately tied to the wider discussion of continued oppression of Black people in America and the world.

“My problem, though, is that from what I’ve been hearing, is that the experiences, the history, the politics of Jewish people matter more than the history, experiences, politics of black people, of African-Americans specifically, and I think that’s deeply problematic,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz’s contributions to campus discussion was one thing that made some of those involved especially disappointed.

“I do respect him, I think he has done a lot of really phenomenal things for campus. And I hate that in my mind, this is sort of overshadowing that right now,” Solberg said.


Going forward

After discussing the tweets for 25 minutes, some members of Student Senate started to ask what Senate could do to address the issue.

Ehrlich did mention that an investigation into potential biases and discrimination has been launched in response to the tweets. The Bias Reporting Process, according to her, is similar to the Title IX process and is considered the parallel policy for discrimination, racism and bias for some reason other than gender, such as race, ethnicity and religion.

This process first begins when a report is initially made and is followed up on by the bias response team, which is made up of Dean of Students Deb Southern, Associate Dean of the College Tim Foster, Director of Human Resources Crystal Bohm, Director of Campus Safety Mark Welker and Title IX Coordinator Kim Schrader.

Once the investigation begins, the team follows up on the report by interviewing the person who filed the report, anyone who was witness to the bias behavior, anyone potentially impacted and the person who has done the alleged bias behavior.

However, Ehrlich mentioned this process can be frustrating for people who want to know the outcome and consequences of public biased behavior because the college cannot legally provide information regarding those consequences or punishments. She does hope that, if anything comes from this incident, it’s awareness of this reporting process.

Solberg has experienced some backlash from students on campus after her emails were shared, as well as emails of support. Corsaro sees herself as a support for students of all backgrounds when they face difficulty.

“First and foremost is always the welfare of our students, no matter where they come from, what their color or their religion because that’s my job,” Corsaro said.

She hopes that the community can use the discussion that has come out of the events to look at hate speech.

Solberg said that Hillel was planning some sort of response, focusing on a discussion about hate speech. The tentative title is “Hillel Against Hate.” Corsaro will follow the lead of the students.

Shabazz said he was glad that the discussion was taking place. It provides a chance to learn through facing uncomfortable subjects as well as a chance for students of privilege to confront the effects of that privilege. He would like to see a panel on Black-Jewish relations come out of this.

“This is a great opportunity. Israel should be on the table. Black-Jewish relations should be on the table. Zionism should be on the table. Can Black people be racist? Or can Black people be anti-Semitic? All that should be on the table,” he said.

Still, the discussion so far has allowed students to take a lead in combating hate speech on campus. Corsaro and Raley both commented on being impressed by the student responses.

“The beautiful thing is, I have, in this process, gotten to see how smart and how compassionate and how understanding our students are at Knox and there’s been a very warm outreaching from our other club leaders and I have been very impressed,” Corsaro said.



Note: An earlier edition of this article stated that Corsaro was present at the April 10 meeting. One of the Hillel advisors was, not Corsaro.

Sierra Henry, Co-News Editor on Email
Sierra Henry, Co-News Editor
Sierra Henry is a senior Political Science major who is minoring in journalism. During her time at Knox she has had her work published in the Robinson Daily News, the Galesburg-Register Mail and Cellar Door. In the summer of 2017 she studied abroad in Bologna, Italy where she worked as a student foreign correspondent.
Connor Wood, Editor-in-Chief
Connor Wood is a junior with a double major in English Literature and Environmental Studies. He started as a volunteer writer and then staff writer his freshman year and was a news editor is sophomore year as well. He has also worked as a communications intern for the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Wisconsin.

Tags:  africana studies anti-Semitic Bias Reporting discrimination emails ethnicity first amendment freedom of speech hate mail hate speech Hillel Club Judaism Knox College Student Senate race social media spiritual life Student Senate

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